Book Review

Local Custom by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller

Local Custom stressed me out so much that I kept skipping to the ending and reading it over and over again just to make sure everything would be OK. I can’t say it was a relaxing read, but it was a far more realistic, and ultimately very rewarding, depiction of a romance between a human and a person who is arguably human in genetic terms but very alien in terms of culture.

Local Custom is part of the Liaden universe series by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller. It was the fifth book in the series to be published but chronologically it’s the first in the series. The book starts with an awkward reunion between Anne, a Terran, and Er Thom, a Liaden. Terra and Liaden are different planets although the human populations share a distant genetic background connection. There are physical differences but no tentacles or anything. However, the cultural differences are huge, with the Liadens living in a sort of feudal high-tech society with a complex social code organized around the concept of melant’i, which involves honor and “face”.

In the past, Er Thom and Anne met at a party (she is a professor of linguistics and studies Liaden language, and he is a trader) and they had an affair. It would be unthinkable for a Liaden, especially one as high ranking as Er Thom, to marry a Terran, so Er Thom and Anne assumed that this affair would be brief. Eventually Er Thom returned home, but he couldn’t stop thinking about Anne. When it comes time for Er Thom to marry (arranged marriages are the norm in his culture) he decides that before he marries he should visit Anne and tell her how he feels. It will be, he thinks, a nice thing for her to know, and then he’ll go get married like he’s supposed to.

But surprise, Anne had a baby while he was away. Apparently, in both Anne and Er Thom’s culture this would not have been a big deal, except that she named the baby with the surname of Er Thom’s house, yos’ Galan. In Anne’s culture, to give a baby the last name of the biological father is a sign of respect, but in Er Thom’s culture, once a baby is given the house name, that baby belongs to the family, period. This is a disaster because the kid is half-Terran which is incredibly scandalous, and after some really intense drama in which two decent people try to unravel who, if anyone, is being disrespectful to whom, Er Thom prevails in his demand that Anne and the kid, whose first name is Shan, travel to Liaden to be presented to Er Thom’s family. Cue massive complications caused by family dynamics, political and social intrigue, and lots of horrible misunderstandings.

My very least favorite trope is the “Big Misunderstanding” (often shortened to “The Big Mis”). The Big Mis involves a storyline in which everyone’s problems would disappear if they would simply talk to each other and say that one important thing. Local Custom is a rare case in which The Big Mis works beautifully, because the characters are hampered by cultural differences, not stubbornness or stupidity. In most Big Mis stories, the characters choose not to divulge vital information, but in this story, the characters can’t. In many cases in this book, a person believes he or she has in fact communicated that one big thing, but the other person takes away a completely different message because of the cultural problems. In a few cases, one person willfully withholds vital information but only because they have received faulty information that forces their hand. Both of the main characters are, by nature, quite honest and direct, but their differences are so great that sometimes this honesty and directness doesn’t translate with the nuance that it should.

This book has very little action. Almost all of the conflict is emotionally driven. I could watch spaceships explode all day and not bat an eye, but watching these two intelligent, sensitive, honorable people almost ruin their lives over and over again because of circumstances beyond their control was exhausting.

It was also incredibly admirable. Most alien romances gave a few cultural conflicts that are easily glossed over. Often they are played for humor, and they are superficial. This story was much more realistic in terms of the depth of cultural conflict. It was incredibly well thought out and well written. You are never allowed to forget that these people ARE NOT STUPID. They are simply both way, way over their heads and every single conversation is a minefield. Yet their chemistry and their mutual goodness (they both seem like really good people who want to do the right thing) makes you root for them over and over again.

This book is not, strictly speaking, a romance novel, and yet it totally is. Yes, the romance was formed before the book starts, but it’s in this book that the couple has to make it work, and it all comes down to how much will they sacrifice for each other and how much do they trust each other.

It’s also about communication, and how important it is to be direct and honest and kind and honorable when you deal with other people. Er Thom and Anne are able to work together because even with their cultural and linguistic differences, they’ve laid a foundation of trust and good intentions. They are also both consistent in being more concerned with the welfare of Shan than with all this drama. For instance, Er Thom sternly reminds himself that rather than be jealous of a male friend of Anne’s who has been a father-figure to Shan, he owes him only thanks:


Jerzy Entaglia stood in some way as the child’s foster-father. The success of his efforts in that role was before Er Thom now: alert, intelligent, good-natured and bold-hearted. What should Er Thom yos’ Galan accord Jerzy Entaglia, save all honor, and thanks for a gift precious beyond price?


Sometimes romances are just frothy fun. Sometimes shit gets real. As Jennifer Crusie says in Bet Me (another book that pulls of the Big Mis trope), “This fairy tale thing…it’s not for kids.” It’s hard watching two grown-ups navigate painful stuff but it’s also thrilling, because, hello, GROWN-UPS. That thing where Er Thom refuses to allow himself to be pissy about Jerzy’s close relationship with Shan is a grown-up quote, y’all. And there’s plenty of fun stuff, too. I’ll leave you with my favorite part, a Liaden makeover scene that includes these inspiring words from the fairy godmother dressmaker:


“An original is a Code unto herself. There is not your like on all of Liad. The rules that bind you are not found within the world, but within yourself. Recall it and carry your head-so! Eh? There are those who must crane to admire you-that is their concern, not yours. There are those who will turn their face away and cry out that you are not as they.”

She lifted her hand to cover a bogus yawn. “Boors, alas, are found even in the highest houses…It will be amusing to see what the world makes of you, Lady. And what you will make of the world.”

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Local Custom by Sharon Lee

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  1. I love love love this book (and series)! Now I wanna reread… maybe i’ll buy the Audible edition—it’s in my wishlist, anyway. I’ll just blame it on you, Carrie. *innocent*

  2. Okay, I bought the audiobook. Thanks for the excuse! (Also: road trip. Latest DBSA podcast and Local Custom along with granny square crocheting might keep me from killing the rest of the occupants of the car. We can hope!?)

  3. Janhavi says:

    This is a great series overall – and in fact this book is not one of my favourites in it, they get even better.

  4. Janhavi says:

    Oh, I should add- this book is really a prequel- so although it is chronologically the 1st, and is a good stand alone book and a great introduction to the world, the later books have a connecting plot arc/series arc.

  5. Pangolin says:

    I love this series too, and like Janhavi – this one isn’t my favorite, there are more that are even better! I’d love to see more reviews of the series here. The next one, Scout’s Progress, is beautiful and heartbreaking with how Liaden customs affect helping a woman extract herself from an abusive family with her own melant’i intact.

  6. Jeanravel says:

    My favorite series as well. If I were to pick my favorite book of all time, it would be Scout’s Progress, the companion book to this one, which is Daav’s story. I’ve lost count of my times reading it. Hidden identities, wonderful heroine, and great secondary characters in all of the scout pilots.

  7. Maria F says:

    Another big fan of the series here! I, too, find this a stressful read for the reasons you give in your review, but also worthwhile for the same reasons.

  8. Rebe says:

    Just FYI, the buy links take you to the physical books, but for some reason the Kindle links don’t show up! They are completely separate from the paper books (not sure why Amazon has it set up that way). I’ve been looking for Scout’s Progress on Kindle, and I had to search a little for these two books. Apparently they were released on Kindle in late April.

  9. Barb in Maryland says:

    Yes, yes, Carrie–read Scout’s Progress! It is soooo wonderful and romantic. Happy sighs just thinking about it.
    I once heard Sharon Lee mention that they wrote ‘Local Custom’ as an example of the right way to do a Secret Baby story. But, as you point out so well, it is also a stellar example of a Big Mis storyline that actually works.

  10. CarrieS says:

    To those interested in Scout’s Progress, here’s a link to my review – I gave it an A, of course!

  11. RevMelinda says:

    Ah, I love this book so much. Every time I read it I discover something new in it. The authors call it one of their “space Regencies”–a futuristic setting with spaceships but also courtliness, strict social rules, and a sense of honor and family (probably no accident that the authors are fans of Georgette Heyer). The longing that Anne and Er Thom feel for one another is conveyed so beautifully, and their happy ending is even more meaningful for being hard-won.

  12. Barb in Maryland says:

    LOL! I see that I commented on your review of ‘Scout’s Progress’. I love the fact that I have the memory capacity of a sieve!
    So now we need you to read ‘Agent of Change’—space-faring, 8 foot tall turtles, Carrie!

  13. CarrieS says:

    Sometimes I can’t remember if I’ve reviewed a book or not and I have to search the site to find out! But yes, I LOVED Scout’s Progress. Agent of Change has 8 foot turtles? REALLY?

  14. RevMelinda says:

    Yes, 8 foot turtles! (And what turtles they are. . .) Yes, Carrie, you should read it! “Agent of Change” is a terrific book, but it’s a little different in tone–it has a central romance but also lots of action/adventure. In my mind, it falls much more into the space opera category, with a heroine who is just as badass as the hero–well, actually, more badass.

  15. Anne says:

    One of the unusual things about this book is the height discrepancy. It’s one of very very few books where the hero is shorter than the heroine. And it works. You can totally see why they are into each other.

    Based on author photos, I suspect the authors themselves who are a married couple, share this height discrepancy.

    This series is famous as being one of the first the Internet saved from extinction. The first three books (not including this one) were published in the 1980s. The publisher let the series lapse. Unknown to the authors, the books had a cult following with fans including Anne McCaffrey. In the mid 1990s the authors tripped over discussion forums on the early Internet devoted to the books.

    There was no kindle back then, so the authors put out a series of self-published “chapbooks” with short stories from the universe. They sold them via their early web site, but I think you had to send your money via postal mail at first.
    Later when Kindle started up, these authors were among the very first to self publish electronically, repurposing the chapbook stories. They did quite well.

    Their success made print publishers willing to bring out New books by them. Now the full book series is maybe 10 volumes or more. It’s an entire shelf in my home library.

  16. cleo says:

    I’ve heard such good things about this series, but find it daunting to figure out where to start. What’s a good entry point?

  17. Take note that the Liaden ebooks are to be had in omnibus editions or standalones, so check around before clicking!

  18. Rikki says:

    I love this book. It is probably my favorite in the series (I sort of trailed off after about twelve books). The only thing that made me unhappy was that I really like these people and the fact that it was a prequel to main body of the series means that certain that they are not the focus. Though it is funny to see the cute little baby as a grown man or vice versa depending on how you came to the series.

  19. RevMelinda says:

    Cleo, my two cents about where to start the Liaden books: I started with “Local Custom” and it was a great place to begin, as it introduces Liaden culture (and the various clan members) through Anne’s eyes, and the reader learns it along with her. It’s also thematically much more of a romance. After that, “Scout’s Progress” and “Mouse and Dragon” follow chronologically.

    Another natural entry point would be “Agent of Change,” which introduces Val Con yos’Phelium (son of the main couple in “Scout’s Progress”) and begins a major narrative within the series–if you like action and adventure, wild fights and flights across the galaxy in spaceships, badass mercenary heroines, and 8 foot singing turtles who love performance art, then you might want to start with this one.

  20. Storyphile says:

    I have loved loved loved the Liaden novels since the 80s when I first borrowed Conflict of Honors from the library as a teenager. I took that book out 20 times at least. I was seriously considering “losing” the book at home, but the library discarded the copy before I could be so unethical. I never forgot that book, and a few years later I was combing the secondhand stores for the first three Liaden novels.

    I was devastated when it seemed three books was all there would ever be, elated when I discovered Lee and Miller were self publishing chapbooks of Liaden short stories that I could mail order, and overjoyed when the original books and planned sequels were being published again 20 years later.

    Lee and Miller aren’t just on my autobuy list; they are autobuy in every possible format as soon as available.

    For anyone who is interested: Baen is republishing the short stories as the Liaden Universe Constellation collections. Lee & Miller also have a site for their unfinished or unpublished work called Splinter Universe; right now they are posting excerpts from the never-published sequel to Conflict of Honors, with commentary.

  21. Storyphile says:

    One further note: if you purchase your ebooks directly from Baen, you can download them in any format they have, DRM-free.

  22. Rhonda says:

    I started this series with Fledgling. I now own practically every book. Some are paperback; most are e-books. I have no idea how many times I have read each book. If I have a choice I will buy them directly from Baen.

  23. GHN says:

    Another fan of the Liaden books here! I just adore those books…
    I also second the recommendation to buy the books from Baen. The Dragon Variation is an omnibus that has three of the Liaden books: Local Custom, Scout’s Progress and Conflict of Honors.
    There are also other omnibus editions, as well as single-book editions and short story collections here (make sure to read what each particular book here contains!):

  24. Dancing_Angel says:

    LIAD! One of my all-time favorite worlds to visit! As it happens, I have a copy of Lee and Miller’s latest “Dragon and Exile” next to me as I type this – it is literally inches away from my hand.

    I love love love this series. This isn’t my favorite of them – that would have to be “I Dare” or “Scout’s Progress,” although the aforementioned “Dragon in Exile” is a strong contender, as is “Conflict of Honors” – but it is a wonderful introduction to the world. We can enter it, along with Anne, and feel her confusion and identify with her struggles as she tries to figure out these new rules and they impact her.

    I was so delighted to hear that several other books are in the offing. As long as I get my respective Pat Rin and Aelliana fixes, I will be a happy camper! (Also love Shan and Priscilla).

  25. Niki says:

    What what what? How have I never heard of this series? The parent prequel with an adventuring son reminds me of the Vorkosigans, but that is not a bad thing. Thanks for reviewing this. Off to Kindle…

  26. Gus says:

    Cleo & others

    Agent of Change is a good starting place


    The Ebook is FREE on both Amazon & Baen.

    Fantastic series!!!

  27. Norbert says:

    Baen also has a second Lee and Miller Ebook on it’s free library page.
    This is Theo Waitley’s story, another intertwined with the Liaden universe. All great reads and re-reads.

  28. It seems odd to me to call Local Custom the first in the series in chronological order. There are four novels in the series that are set before Local Custom (Crystal Soldier, Crystal Dragon, Balance of Trade, and Trade Secret), and many short stories.

    I suppose you could make the case that even though those four novels are in the same multiverse (the first two are set largely in another universe) and even though there is a clear cultural and lineage connection to later books, they are a separate series. I haven’t heard anyone try to make this case seriously, though.

    As to starting points, there are many books that work as one’s first book. Local Custom is a good choice for the romance reader. Two others are legally available free online (Agent of Change, which has a romance component, and Fledgling, which does not).

  29. Vanye says:

    There are currently 18 novels in the same universe, with four more currently contacted (and one just turned in). I have been reading them since the late 90s, and recently introduced by wife to then via Audible. They are so much fun!

  30. Mary Terry says:

    I very much enjoyed this book, but it’s one of the few in the series that I have NOT reread, probably because it was so Difficult to read. Would they get their happy ending? And Shan! I met him as an adult and loved him, but the child just touched my heart. Read the “series”: there’s romance, science fiction, witty dialog, great world building, military strategy, and it’s never boring. I finish one story and go looking for another.

  31. Samantha says:

    Loooove this series, but with one caveat – not all of them are romances with an HEA. One of them was totally devastating and I’m STILL mad about it.

  32. MMZ says:

    Started reading Local Custom. Enjoying it. Thanks for the info.

    Samantha, please, name the book with the unhappy ending, I feel like continuing with this series, but being rather depressed at the moment, I don’t think I could handle sadness.


  33. @MMZ I suggest that after you finish Local Custom, you go on to read the story arc that begins with Agent of Change, after which you can go on and read about Theo or go back and read prequels. Either way, you will gain the devastating information—I firmly believe that because I knew it was coming, I handled it way better than if it had been a surprise.

  34. mmvz says:


  35. OtterB says:

    This is one of my least favorite of the series, which in general I love. Good starting points are this, Scout’s Progress, Agent of Change, Conflict of Honors (where I started – it was the first in an omnibus), or Fledgling.

    If I had to pick a favorite it would be Scout’s Progress (but tw for familial abuse – we see the heroine escape it), closely followed by Mouse and Dragon, I Dare (but you really need to read your way up to I Dare through the main sequence), and Balance of Trade (a different set of characters, and non-romance, but also showing the Liaden-Terran culture conflict).

  36. MARGOT says:

    @MMZ, I second the comments from ms bookjunkie. I started with Scout’s Progress, so Mouse and Dragon was devastating to me. But if you read the Agent of Change series up through I Dare, and read Fledgling followed by Saltation, then pick up the timeline of the series after I Dare, you will be well fortified to read and ENJOY Mouse and Dragon. Scout’s Progress on its own is a great read and hooked me on the series. Just skip M&D and save for later.

  37. MARGOT says:

    @Samantha, I hope you are still reading the series. You will find Fledgling illuminating, and you will flip over the latest release, Dragon in Exile. I’d read the series in order, though, as ms bookjunkie advises, especially the latest series of books.

  38. Mike D says:

    Here’s the authorial Reading Order suggestions.

  39. Samantha says:

    Oh yes, still reading the series, though haven’t gotten through all of them yet (got distracted by the Vorkosigans). But I started with an omnibus, so didn’t realize what was going to happen in Mouse and Dragon.

  40. Pangolin says:

    Nothing I had queued up on my reader was catching my interest for what to read next, so I ended up reading Local Custom and Scout’s Progress. And then discovered I’d clearly never read Mouse and Dragon as I didn’t own it. Rectifying that now (luckily I have an idea of how it will end, having read the rest of the series many times).

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